A Utopian Curriculum

PART TWO: BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Ibtisam Ahmed

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Iara Silva

Welcome back to the Utopian Curriculum series with Project Myopia! In this post, I will look at the first case study on the curriculum, the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, it has received a renewed level of attention and love since the tragic passing of actor Chadwick Boseman.

At the time of its release, Black Panther marked a historic moment for representation in the blockbuster superhero genre, being the first ever film in the category to centre on a Black African character. A critical and commercial success, it went on to win several times during the awards circuit. These accolades included being the first superhero film to score a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture, definitively proving that diverse stories and non-white casts can excel in terms of conventional markers of success.

As a celebratory moment of Black success within the film industry, it is easy to understand why the film represents such a radical point of hope in the arts. As a non-Black person of colour, it is not my place to reflect on its specific cultural impact beyond pointing out that many Black writers have already commented on it. However, the narrative of the film provides some thought-provoking ideas on how to rethink society – the central goal of utopianism – which is why it is an excellent example with which to properly kick off this curriculum.

Rethinking Governance

A common motif in utopian thinking is trying to take society back to a mystical Golden Age. As noted by Gregory Claeys in Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea (2011), the concept of this idealised Golden Age has acted as a specific goal in post-Reformation European culture and government. In a modern setting, post-colonial states have tried to frame some aspects of decolonisation as a move towards a pre-colonial good life. An example of this was the successful repeal of Section 377 in India, where the colonial era anti-sodomy law was struck down, effectively legalising same-gender relationships in 2018. (It’s worth noting at this point that this is often a simplistic and problematic reading of the past because it assumes pre-colonial life was perfect.)

Black Panther engages with this decolonial or anti-colonial Golden Age provocatively. The film explicitly states that the fictional country of Wakanda was neither a victim of the Transatlantic slave trade nor colonialism. Its isolation has allowed it to remain untouched by the traumas of white supremacy and invasion. Consequently, it provides a hypothetical scenario of an African nation state that has evolved organically over the centuries, free from interference.

As such, the system of governance we see is unique to Wakanda. It has not developed the form of neoliberal democracy left behind as a legacy of European colonialism in many parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Such a system, in turn, has led to a neo-colonial power dynamic that still privileges capitalism and industrialisation over social development.

Instead, Wakanda retains its monarchy, but it does so in a way that is consciously different to both absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia and constitutional monarchies like the UK. A crucial difference is that the country functions as an egalitarian welfare state. The position of monarch does not entail any special privileges within the country – though it does carry diplomatic immunity abroad – but is instead a position of duty and care. Resources go towards social services such as public transport, energy infrastructure and healthcare, with no explicit sense of wealth disparity.

Furthermore, the line of succession is not absolute. While there is a preference for royal blood (as stated by the character Zuri in the first trial by combat scene), the monarchy can be challenged. Though this is limited to the smaller ruling council members and their champions, it is still a notable alternative to the way monarchy works in the real world. Thus, the fiction of Wakanda creates the possibility of reimagining governance in innovative – and potentially better – ways.

Additionally, the vibrant links to existing African culture embed this line of thinking into a specific African aesthetic, especially in the work of costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler. In doing so, the film highlights the importance of new ways of imagining the world but rejects the co-option of this specific Afrofuturist vision into a universal template. Thus, it challenges us to think about creating our utopias in the context of our lived realities.

Expanding Progress

Alongside this utopian world-building, Black Panther deals directly with the politics of isolationism versus globalisation. Within this debate, it is easy to cast Erik Killmonger as a revolutionary figure who is ultimately misguided in his quest for Black liberation. In fact, a common line of thinking among some critics and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe fanbase is considering whether Killmonger was actually the tragic hero of the piece all along.

While tempting to do so, this idea ignores one of the key in-text elements of the film. As Ryan Coogler himself made clear in the script, Killmonger’s vision is of conquest, not freedom. In a chilling call-back to the infamous geographical reach of the British Empire, he states that “the sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire” when he is discussing the potential for expanding its influence beyond its borders.

Black writers, especially Black feminist writers, have pointed out that Killmonger’s quest for vengeance relies on recreating violence on Black bodies. In particular, he is callous towards Black women, a reflection of the misogynist worldview that is embedded in him through his US special armed forces training. Princess Weekes, Karen Attiah and Sherronda J. Brown have provided detailed analysis of this.

Killmonger’s failure lies not in the plot device where the hero always wins but in his own ideological refusal. As Audre Lorde unequivocally said in her titular essay, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). A product of US military training, Killmonger does not represent a utopian alternative to the current issue of Black suffering but is effectively a proxy for white American imperialism.

At the same time, T’Challa and the strict adherence to tradition he represents are not exactly globally impactful either. Under his guidance, Wakanda would remain a static and isolated idyll, akin to the island utopias of the early Utopian Studies literary canon. Luckily, the film addresses this dilemma head-on through its women, especially the role of Nakia.

Unlike T’Challa’s wary approach to humanitarianism – and indeed, unlike W’Kabi’s xenophobic response to welcoming refugees – Nakia recognises that Wakanda has already created a system that can serve the greater good. Her advocacy throughout the film is in favour of allowing that progress to be felt elsewhere. It is no accident that the Wakandan outreach centre at the end of the film is not based in an embassy, a United Nations mission, or an existing US non-profit, but is actively set up as its own entity in an impoverished and majority Black neighbourhood.

New Ways of Thinking

What makes Black Panther such an exciting and timely example of utopian thinking comes back to how it centres voices that are often unheard. Most of the classic canon of utopian literature and culture skews heavily towards white creators, mostly men. While Afrofuturist literature, like the works of Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin, and music, like Sun-Ra, have become a regular feature of Utopian Studies academia, it is always exciting for cinematic examples like Black Panther to break through. This breakthrough is all the more exciting given its broad mainstream appeal and reach as a piece of audio-visual media.

Moreover, it does so without relying on existing global structures to make change possible. Its African voices are front and centre on-screen and the overwhelming majority of its creative team is Black. The story it tells is of a non-colonised African monarchy thriving in an otherwise white supremacist world. While it is true that some of the film’s elements fall short of being completely radical – the positive role of the CIA is a glaring instance of this – it remains a groundbreaking step in the right direction.

Key text

Black Panther (2018), dir. Ryan Coogler.

Works cited

Attiah, K. (2018), “Forget Killmonger – Wakanda’s omen are ‘Black Panther’s’ true revolutionaries”, in The Washington Post. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/03/01/forget-the-abusive-killmonger-wakandas-women-are-black-panthers-true-black-liberators/

Brown, S. J. (2018), “The Black Feminist Argument for ‘Black Panther’”, in Wear Your Voice. Available at https://wearyourvoicemag.com/the-black-feminist-black-panther/

Claeys, G. (2011), Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea. Thomas & Hudson Ltd.

Lorde, A. (1984; reprinted 2018), The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Penguin Modern.

Weekes, P. (2018), “How Killmonger’s Misogyny Teaches Us About Western Patriarchy”, in The Mary Sue. Available at https://www.themarysue.com/how-killmongers-misogyny-teaches-us-about-western-patriarchy/

Supplementary Reading

Coates, T-N. (2016), Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet. Marvel Comics.

Gay, R. (2017), World of Wakanda. Marvel Comics.

Lavender, I., and Yaszek, L. (eds.) (2020), Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century (New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality). Ohio State University Press.

O’Brien, B. (2020), “Nakia was Right: Black Panther and the Difference Between Rage and Revolution”, in Tor. Available at https://www.tor.com/2020/03/18/nakia-was-right-black-panther-and-the-difference-between-rage-and-revolution/

Womack, Y. L. (2013), Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago Review Press.

Zamalin, A. (2019), Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism. Columbia University Press.

Ibtisam Ahmed (@Ibzor) is a Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and International Relations, the University of Nottingham. He is completing his thesis, titled “The Decolonial Killjoy: the British Raj as a space of political utopia” in which he challenges the notion of imperialism as a benign civilising force while highlighting the radical power of grassroots anti-colonial movements. He has co-edited and been published in multiple books, journals, and websites. He is also heavily involved with queer activism in his home country of Bangladesh and in the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in the Commonwealth.

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